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Pathfinder: Recollections of Those Who Served 1942 - 1971

Compiled by the Office of NOAA Corps Operations

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Recollections of Ordinary Seaman Robert Lincoln of Service on the USC&GSS PATHFINDER in 1967


Mr. Roger Lincoln of Wasilla, Alaska, served on the USC&GSS PATHFINDER during the summer of 1967 as a young man just out of high school. His account details his experience as an ordinary seaman on the PATHFINDER and his perspective on the work of the ship. His view of life on the PATHFINDER during an Alaska field season would probably be shared by the majority of those who served in the deck department of the PATHFINDER for the duration of its post-war career as a survey vessel.


"During the summer of 1967 I took a job with the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. I needed a job for the summer until I was to go into the Marines in October. I went to Anchorage and applied for any job I could get for the summer with the civil service. Just as I got home I received a call offering me a job as an ordinary seaman on the OSS PATHFINDER, an oceanographic research ship, based in Kodiak. Later I found the ship was affectionately known as the 'PIGFINDER.' I accepted the offer of employment, flew to Kodiak the next day, and reported aboard the ship. I was accompanied by five other new hires.

"As it was late in the evening the quartermaster gave us some blankets and told us to find an empty bunk, known as a 'rack,' and get some sleep until morning. About one in the morning I was suddenly awakened. There was loud singing and shouting. Then there was the sound of bodies bouncing off the bulkheads. It seems the crew was coming back from a night in the town of Kodiak. They were for the most part quite drunk. They introduced themselves to me and told me to get a good night's sleep. Right!!

"The job was very physical in nature. The ship was recharting the shoreline and ocean bottom off of Shelikof Strait, Kodiak and the Aleutian Islands to update the charts due to the changes after the 1964 earthquake.

"Much of my job was loading and unloading equipment from the ship to small boats for the scientists and surveyors. The rest of the time was spent scrubbing decks and general ship maintenance.

"Most of the maintenance was chipping paint. Chipping paint seems to be an ancient time consuming tradition of the sea. It's primary purpose apparently is to keep sailors busy so they don't get bored. First the paint is chipped away from any rust spots with a chipping hammer and a wire brush. After that a coat of red colored rust inhibitor known as 'red death' is applied. After that a coat of green called 'green death' is applied. After they are dry a coat of paint is applied to match the color scheme of the vessel. As there seemed to be an endless supply of paint it did no good to try to use it all.

"Many times I went ashore to work as a porter for the scientific crews. After the equipment was set up we could go beach combing. We found hundreds of glass Japanese fishing floats. Sometimes we found Russian ones. They were made of iron. I still have a few of these floats.

"The bos'n was an old sailor named 'Chief Scott'. He was a kindly old man and took a liking to those of us that worked hard and tried. When weather was too bad to be above decks he would take us below and give us practical seamanship lessons. He taught to tie knots and to handle small boats. Of course he told us old sea stories. We liked him and he liked us. It is unbelievable how many kinds of knots he knew. After he accepted us it was OK to call him 'Scottie.'

"Another old bos'n told us how he was on a freighter in Manila in the 1930's. He told us of tying up next to a small ship and looking at it with disdain. He commented that he hoped he would never be found working on a ship like that. It was the PATHFINDER. [The PATHFINDER that Mr. Lincoln served on was not launched until 1942. The PATHFINDER referred to was the old PATHFINDER which served in the Philippine Islands for forty years before being lost due to hostile action in WWII.]

"After a few weeks I was assigned as helmsman. This meant I was to steer the ship. It was interesting because I was on the bridge with the captain and other officers. I usually knew what was happening. It takes some practice to learn to steer without wandering all over the ocean. Once in the middle of the night I turned hard right to avoid a large log floating dead ahead. Of course the ship heeled over to starboard. Many of the crew were thrown out of their racks and onto the deck. They expressed their extreme displeasure to me the next morning. I then learned that it is best to go ahead and ram a floating log rather than face the wrath of sailors who have had their sleep disturbed.

"We hit a few storms off the Aleutians. The ship would roll way over on its side and take green water over the bow. sometimes the water would come over the flying bridge. The flying bridge is the open bridge one deck above the command bridge. During extreme weather everyone was required to stay inside. No one was allowed on deck for fear of being swept overboard. Often times most of the crew would be seasick. I only got seasick a little bit. Now I seem to get seasick all the time.

"Sometimes the North Pacific was calm as a lake. It was very beautiful. For a few days in the month of August the earth passed through a meteor shower. At night from the flying bridge we could watch hundreds of meteors burning through the sky. I've never seen anything like it.

"Once a sailor fell overboard. The ship was stopped and we were preparing to lower a skiff to take some supplies ashore. As he stepped into the skiff the ship rolled and he fell into the water. The water was about 34 degrees. He was paralyzed by the cold. He couldn't call for help and he couldn't swim because of the cold shock. Fortunately he was wearing a life jacket. He was pulled out of the water in a short time and other than being cold he was OK. To this day I believe in wearing a life jacket when I am around the water.

"The ship was tied up to the pier with a big 4 inch rope called a hawser. The rope is too big to throw ashore so it must be pulled ashore with a smaller rope called a heaving line. At the end of the heaving line is a baseball sized knot called a monkey fist. It is wrapped around a steel weight so it can be thrown ashore to someone on the dock. The ship is then winched in by capstans mounted on the deck. One sailor insisted on his right to throw the heaving line ashore. He threw the monkey fist with all his strength. Unfortunately he forgot about the motor launch just over his head. The monkey fist hit the keel, bounced back, and knocked the sailor unconscious. He never heard the end of it.

"It was interesting to visit some of the normally inaccessible places ashore. One place was Karluk and its old Orthodox Church. One of the older native women gave us a tour of the church. She explained everything and told how the icons had been brought to Alaska from old Russia. It was like stepping several hundred years back in time. We visited old abandoned canneries. We went ashore on Augustine Island and visited the volcano. I have been on the Barren Islands and the Shumagin Islands.

"Often we saw seals and whales. We could feed the seals hot dogs from small boats. The whales were impressive. Killer whales used to come out of the water alongside our boats. The whales were longer than our 16 foot boat. We were assured by the biologists that no one had ever been known to have been attacked by a killer whale. The usual retort was, "If someone has been attacked, who would know about it?"

"We had fun with seagulls. They were everywhere. We used to take two pieces of meat and tie them together with about three feet of string. It was fun to watch the gulls fight over it. Another trick was to pour tabasco sauce over a piece of meat and throw it to the gulls. The gulls would squawk and beat their wings against the water as they tried to drink.

"Sometimes we anchored at night in a secluded cove that was protected from the wind. We dropped crab pots over the stern and in the morning had fresh crab for breakfast.

"The cooks were Filipinos. All meals had rice and pineapple served somewhere. I got so sick of rice and pineapple I swore I would never eat them again. Even today when I eat rice and pineapple I remember the PATHFINDER.

"Once I was on a small boat that got lost in the fog. We were charting the ocean bottom. A sudden fog bank rolled in and we were not able to see. We radioed the PATHFINDER and asked them if they could pick us up on radar. They couldn't. They sounded the ships horn. We couldn't hear. We began to worry. Being run down by a passing freighter was a possibility. Another possibility was running on the rocks along the coastline. After several hours the fog suddenly lifted and we found we had drifted within a few hundred yards of the ship. It felt really good to see it sitting there right in front of us.

"At the end of the summer I left the ship in Homer and returned to Wasilla. The summer of 1967 was one of the most interesting I have ever had."

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Last Updated: June 8, 2006 9:24 AM

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